Sunday, October 21, 2012

All Beef Meatloaf

I think meatloaf gets a bad rap.  I'm not entirely sure why, but I have a feeling that it stems from bad cafeteria meatloaf in our childhood.  Or the stuff that comes frozen in little boxes that bear pictures that only vaguely resemble the contents of the box.  Maybe you tried it in some greasy spoon diner, and found that it was overly spicy, or conversely, terribly bland.  Maybe someone made it for you and tried to "spice it up" by adding roasted red peppers and feta cheese, and it just...didn'

Although, now that I typed it, that combination might be interesting....

That's the other side of meatloaf.  While some people grimace at the very thought of meatloaf, it seems that many others see something worth redeeming about the idea.  Their response has been to conjure up endless  variations on this American classic.  There's pizza meatloaf (mix some pepperoni and green peppers in with the meat and top it with marinara and mozzarella cheese), Mexican meatloaf (add chili powder and chiles to the meat and top it with enchilada sauce and cheese), apple cinnamon turkey meatloaf (sounds weird, but if you think about it, it could work), and even cocoa crispies encrusted meatloaf.  Eww.  I try not to judge before tasting something, but.....ewwww.

Me?  I like meatloaf plain.  It's how I was raised.  Hearing "Meatloaf" in response to the question, "What's for dinner?" is actually a good memory for me.  My mom didn't use the "meatloaf mix" of beef and pork.  I tried it once, and I prefer all beef.  I've tweaked the recipe a little bit, but it's pretty close to the way my mom always made it.  It's comfort food.  Perfect for cool evenings or Sunday afternoons, alongside mashed potatoes and the vegetable of your choice.  I have some in the oven right now, and boy, does it smell good.  Here's how I make it:

 Heat up about 1 tsp of oil and cook a diced onion in it.  You're just trying to get it soft.  I don't like crunchy or even firm onion pieces in meatloaf, and neither does my family.  Yeah, the onion will cook in the oven (mixed into the meatloaf), but not enough for my liking.  So I give it a good head start.
Once the onion is soft and only a little brown, add some minced garlic and toss it around for about 20 seconds.  At this point, you will smell the garlic.  Yummy.  Turn the heat off and continue to stir for a few minutes.  Stirring it will keep the garlic from burning.  Now just set the pan aside to cool for a few minutes.

Now, get a big bowl out.  I have these two stainless steel bowls that I use for mixing all kinds of things.  I always used to use plastic salad bowls, because it was all I had.  You wouldn't believe how excited I was when I saw these stainless bowls on clearance at Meijer.  Yes, stainless steel mixing bowls were a dream come true for me.  What of it?

Anyway, you're going to throw a bunch of stuff into the big bowl.

 Let's see, about half a sleeve of saltine crackers, crushed up, some ketchup (catsup? ketsup?) a little milk, some salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and the onion/garlic mixture.  Stir it all together and it should look something like this-------------------->
Yummy!  Okay, not really.  And please, no votes on what this looks like.  It's just ketchupy crackers.

Although, it should actually be a little more orangey, since there should be a couple of eggs in there.  I forgot.  Until just before the meatloaf went in the oven.  Bummer.  But all's well that ends well.  I remembered before the point of no return.

Okay, now some people just put the meat in the bowl, then throw everything on top of it and mix it all together.  That's fine.  It works.  But I do think it leads to over-mixing....almost kneading.  And that makes the meatloaf tough.  It also tends to leave pockets of dry saltine, or scrambled egg in the mix.  That's not appetizing.  So I like to mix it all together.  It ensures that the crackers are moistened well, which then helps the meatloaf stay moist, and that the eggs and seasonings are well distributed throughout the loaf.

Now crumble the ground beef over the mixture.  Again, crumbling it rather than just plopping the whole package into the bowl, will allow you to more gently mix everything together, leaving you with a more tender meatloaf.  You can use whichever ground beef you like, but I use either all ground chuck, or if ground sirloin is on sale, I will mix chuck and sirloin evenly.  Now it's time to get your hands in there.  It's a good idea to take off your rings, because gunk can get stuck in the little tines.  That's what I've heard, anyway.

Slide your fingers down along the side of the bowl and pick up the goo with your fingers, and then sort of turn it all over, over and over again.  You want to sort of fold, rather than knead.  A little squeezing is fine and even necessary, but this isn't bread dough.

Once it is well mixed, and you don't see any bits of goo hanging out on the bottom of the bowl, divide the mix in half with the side of your hand.  Did I mention that this is a double recipe?  Well, it is.  I don't think there is any point to making a single meatloaf.  I'm not sure if it's well known or not, but it is a fact that the best part of meatloaf is the leftovers.  Oh, the original meal is good and all.  But the leftovers......mmmm.....

First, you can have hot meatloaf sandwiches.  Just reheat the meatloaf in slices, along with the mashed potatoes and gravy.  Then lay some meatloaf on a piece of bread, put some potatoes next to it, and cover the whole thing with gravy.  No, it's not sophisticated.  Possibly not the healthiest meal ever.  It rather reminds me of "family restaurant" fare.  But then, when was the last time you walked away from a "family restaurant" hungry?  Yep, it's yummy.

But the best part is still to come.  Oh, the wonders of cold meatloaf sandwiches for lunch.  Jeff was very excited about having meatloaf on a Friday, because he drives on Saturday, and he was looking forward to having meatloaf sandwiches to take along with him.  Don't scoff.  You must try it.  And here's how you make it:  Sandwich bread.  Miracle Whip on both sides.  Slices of meatloaf in the middle.  That's it.  And yes, I said Miracle Whip.  I like mayo as much as the next guy, but there are some sandwiches that just need the tangy zip of Miracle Whip, and mayo will not do.  Bologna is one.  Meatloaf is the other.

But I digress.  We must bake the meatloaf, eat it, and sleep a night before discovering the beauty of a meatloaf sandwich.

Okay, so take half of the meatloaf mixture, and get it ready for the oven.  You can do this any way that you like.  I've seen it mashed flat into a baking pan.  I would think that the double batch would fit into a 9"x13" pan.  But I bake meatloaf one of two ways:  In a loaf pan, or free form.  Loaf pans are convenient.  Just mash the mixture down, making sure that there are no air pockets, and bake.  There are two problems with this, though.  First, the meatloaf basically swims in fat.  Once it is cooked, you'll see that it has pulled away from the sides of the pan, and the fat that cooks out has no place else to go, so just surrounds the meatloaf.  Second, it only allows the top to brown.  For me, the best part of the meatloaf is the brown crust.  So I want as much of it as possible.  Therefore, free form is my favorite.

So, take each half of the mixture are form your loaves, just using your hands.  Make sure that the ends are fairly squared off, and that the top doesn't mound up too much.  It should be uniformly thick.  Otherwise, the ends or sides that are skinnier will cook faster and end up dry before the thicker parts are cooked through.

Alright, so I said I like my meatloaf plain.  And that still stands.  However, I make one concession.  Sweet and sour glaze.  It's pretty good, and it doesn't mess with the flavor of the meatloaf too much.  I used to just dip it in ketchup, and this glaze is pretty much ketchup, but with a little zing.

Really, it's ketchup, sugar, and vinegar.

However, I only add the glaze to one meatloaf.  The one for eating tonight.  The other one must remain pure for the meatloaf sandwiches.  There are limits.

Can I just pause here to apologize for my "photography"?  It seems that bloggers are all amazing photographers, as well.  Many of them even sell their prints!  And I can see that.  I would buy some of them.  They would be lovely in my kitchen someday.  But me?  I literally take pictures with my phone. I find it hard to take a picture that isn't hopelessly blurry, just because I can't hold the phone still as I am pressing the little button with my thumb.  I have no idea about lighting, exposure....I can't even think of any other photography terms.  So that's it.  I know my pictures aren't the most appetizing.  Hopefully they are at least helpful in illustrating what I am trying to explain.  That's all.

So if you are using the glaze, pour or brush half of it over the meatloaf.  The other half will go on later. Pop the pan in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes.  This is the time to get your potatoes boiling.
After 45 minutes, brush the rest of the glaze onto the meatloaf, and put it back in the oven for about 15 minutes.

And there you have it.  Nothing fancy.  But so good.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Peasant Soup

Sometimes, you just want soup.

There's something about autumn that makes me want to cook again.  I get a little over it during the summer.  I feel like I have to grill all the time, but being a charcoal-loving family, it can be a little bit of a hassle to start the grill up every day.  By mid-July, I just want to eat sandwiches or salads that don't involve cooking, and get on to other activities.  But come late September, when the chill hits the air, my mind turns to roasts, stews, casseroles, baked goods, and most of all soup.

I love soup, and I love making it from scratch.  There's nothing better than chicken soup that started from some kitchen scraps and a whole bird.  It is somehow satisfying, not just to eat, but to make.  It makes your house smell amazing.  And to watch such humble ingredients turn into something so wonderful, so versatile, so useful as stock, is a thing of beauty.  Stock is an all day proposition in my kitchen.  I make a huge stock pot full of it, using two or three chickens.  It takes at least an hour for that pot to come to a boil, and then it simmers for a couple of hours before I remove the birds, separate the meat from the skin and bones, and throw the bones back in for another few hours.  Then there's the straining, the rapid cooling in an ice bath, and the overnight chilling.  The next day, I can pretty much lift the fat off in one or two pieces, and I am left with a slightly gelatinous stock that is richly flavored, unsalted (store-bought stock has loads of sodium, so whenever you buy it, get the low sodium kind and add your own salt as needed!), and satisfying...if for no other reason than that it is cheap.  Usually, I'll use a gallon of it for soup that night.  The rest of it gets poured into freezer containers and stored away in the deep freeze for later use.  Plus, I get all the meat from the birds.  I use some of it for the soup, and put the rest into freezer bags to use in casseroles and such.  I love it.  Maybe that makes me weird.  But I love the process.


I am not always in the mood for the process.  Maybe things are busy.  Maybe my mind is on other things.  Maybe I am just plain tired.  But I still have to get dinner on the table, and I still just want soup.

Enter Peasant Soup.  This easy, inexpensive, hearty soup really hits the comfort food spot.  That it is reasonably healthy and nutritious is a bonus.  And while you may balk at some of the ingredients, let me assure you that my very picky eldest son asked for seconds last night.  This makes a big batch of soup, but it freezes well.  So freeze the leftovers and you have an extra dinner for an even busier night!  Let's get started:

Brown some ground beef in a dutch oven.  Push the meat to one side, tilt the pot in the other direction, and spoon off most of the fat.  Add a diced onion and cook until softened.  Sprinkle with salt (I use Morton's Kosher salt), pepper and garlic powder (not garlic salt!)  By the way, any time that I use ground beef, I alway cook an onion with it.  And I always season it with salt, pepper and garlic powder.  You might not think it makes such a difference with all the other things that you add to the dish, but it really does!  You should always season your meat, and brown it well, until there are some dark spots on the pan and on the meat.  See the brown stuff around the edges of the pot below?  That's caramelization, and it's going to basically melt into the soup.  That's how you can get great flavor out of something as humble as hamburger.

Once the onion is softened, throw in 2 cups each of diced carrots, celery, and cabbage.

Now pour in a 28 oz can of tomatoes (whole, diced, whatever you have on hand), or a quart of home-canned tomatoes.  Don't worry about the large pieces.  They will get very soft after simmering for a while, and then you can easily crush them by pressing them against the side of the pot with a spoon.

Add a 28 oz can of tomato puree or tomato sauce, or again, a quart of home canned sauce.

 At this point, fill up the tomato cans or jars about 3/4 of the way full with water.  Swish it around and pour it into the pot.  That way you get all the tomato residue, and your cans are ready for the recycle bin.  
Add 8 bouillon cubes.  Yes, that's a lot, but this is about 6 quarts of soup.  However, because bouillon is largely salt, you'll want to hold off on adding any more salt until things have melded and you can see how it tastes.  Now add a teaspoon each of dried thyme and basil.  Stir it all around and bring it up to a bare boil, then turn it down to a simmer and walk away for a while.

 One of the great things about soups is how forgiving they are.  Seriously, if you walk away for an hour, it will be ready.  If you get busy and let it go for a few hours, all you will probably have to do is add a little water now and then to compensate for what has cooked off.  I often get soup going before I go to pick up my kids from school, and let it simmer over low heat on the stove.  That way, dinner is just about done, and I am free to help with homework, nag about chores, or throw together some bread dough!

And that's about it!  Once you are just about ready for dinner, just give the broth a quick taste and adjust the seasonings as needed.  And feel free to play with it a little.  Add any other veggies that you think may taste good.  I sometimes add zucchini, and I tell you, it tastes an awful lot like the peasant soup you can get at Olga's.  

Comfort food doesn't have to be an all day affair.   Enjoy!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Birthday Traditions!

Today, my eldest child turns 11.  I know that I should say that I can't figure out where the years have gone, but I can't.  I know it should feel like he can't be more than 8 or 9 years old.  But the truth is, I have to keep reminding myself that he is only 11.  It seems like he should be at least 14 or 15.  How can he still be so young???

If you know Jacob, you understand.  If you don't, let me explain.  Jacob has always been ahead of his time.  He wasn't an easy infant, but by the time he was a year old, he became ideal.  Well, truth be told, I didn't realize how much of an angel he was, because he was my first.  I just thought I was an amazing parent.
[pause for laughter]
Nope.  Turns out that I am just blessed with an extraordinary kid.  Not only has he always been very obedient, but we found out that he's really smart once he was in school.  He even skipped a grade, which means that he started middle school before he turned 11, and he's STILL taking advanced math. Not only is he smart, he's pretty wise.  He often says things that are simply beyond his years.  He gets things that I didn't get until I was at least in my late 20's.  In fact, when he actually acts his age, I find it incredibly charming.  He's quite a kid.  He's not perfect, of course.  There are issues that he needs to work on, like responsibility.  But really, if my kid is just now turning 11 and I am able to focus almost exclusively on getting him to do all of his chores without being reminded, well, I can't complain.

See?  He's not your average 11 year old.  Which is why I sometimes forget.

But I'd better stop bragging, because he reads my blog, and I don't want him to get a big head.

Happy Birthday to my amazing son, Jacob!

I love birthdays.  I try to make them special.  It's the one day of the year for each person that is purely their day.  I don't go crazy.....we have limited means, so we get a few gifts, and maybe one of them will be on the major side.  This year Jacob has been trying to save for a tablet.  So Grandma is chipping in toward that, and we are paying half of whatever is left to pay.  He has most of his share saved up already, but he hasn't yet found the deal that he is looking for.  Fortunately, he is not looking at the iPad.  Phew.

Anyway, we don't go all out financially, but we do set the evening aside, let the birthday boy or girl pick dinner, and have cake and ice cream afterwards, followed by opening gifts.  On their 5th and 10th birthdays, we take them to Chuck E. Cheese.  Parties on 5th, 13th and 16th.  And who knows what else.  We also try....try, I do something special on or around each birthday.  On the weekend nearest Jacob's birthday, we try to go to a cider mill.  On Nora's birthday, I try to get to a greenhouse to pick out some flowers, including sweet peas.  Max's birthday is a little harder.  We went blueberry picking this past year, and he liked it, so maybe that'll become a thing.  Obviously, it doesn't have to be a big deal.  It's just a tradition that they can connect to their day.

But every year, at least so far, I make a special cake.  There have been a few exceptions.  One year Nora got a glimpse of a pretty cake in the case at the D&W bakery and desperately wanted it, and it happened to be her 5th birthday, when I was throwing her a surprise tea party.  Lots of cooking and baking was involved in the party (on a different day), so getting out of baking the big cake was a win/win.  Most years, I am spending at least two days baking and decorating.  I try to make a cake that suits their interests that year and/or reflects the special name that we call them.  Jacob is "pumpkin", Nora is "sweet pea" and Max is "peanut".....although I extended Max's name to "peanut butter" early on, and it stuck.

Jacob, a couple of years ago, requested a round chocolate cake with chocolate icing.  The previous year, I had made a space shuttle cake, since he wants to be an astronaut.

But he decided that he prefers a more symmetrical cake.  It bugged him that everybody got a different size and shape piece of the space shuttle, and with a round cake, everyone's slice is equal.  That's just the kind of kid he is.  It's all about math and science with him.  Me, I'm more of the creative type.  So I get around his exacting standards by at least throwing some canned pumpkin in the cake.  It actually makes it really moist without making it taste like pumpkin, but more importantly, it gives me some secret satisfaction.  Not so secret anymore, I guess.  Hi, Jacob!

So I don't have a fancy new cake to show you right now, but the important thing is that it is the cake that Jacob wants.  And to be honest, if I was making a space shuttle, I wouldn't have the time to write this post!  Here are some of the cakes that I have made in the past:

Jacob's 1st birthday happened to be on the eve of his cousin's wedding.  We had his party in a hotel room outside of Chicago, so I made sort of portable cakes that would survive the trip.
Little pumpkin cakes.....

Nora's 3rd Birthday Cake, covered in gum paste sweet peas
It looks very much like her 1st birthday cake
Princess themed cupcakes for Nora's 4th

The obligatory princess doll cake

Couldn't think of a theme, but made a pretty
tiered cake with sweet peas for Nora's 7th.... cupcakes to take to school

Replicated a JIF peanut butter jar for Max's first birthday,
with peanut butter  frosting!  The 'chunky' part was a joke because
he was our biggest baby, at nearly 10 lbs
Max loved Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, so I attempted a real
challenge.  1) fondant and oppressive heat do not play well together
2) Cake, even if frozen when decorated, does not make a good
Mickey head, especially when you add the ears
3)  2 year olds don't notice those things, so don't obsess like I did

However, given a shot at redemption, take it!  Max asked for a repeat and I
was happy to give it to him, determined to learn from my mistakes.

Max asked for an M-A-X cake for his 5th, and the flames were added
to match the monster truck decorations that we had at his party.  His cake is
always chocolate-peanut butter flavored, with peanut butter cream cheese
frosting.  If you like cake, you would love this one.

Jeff always requests a carrot cake.  Adults may
not need fancy shaped cakes, but their birthdays
should still be special!

No pictures of my birthday cakes.  There's a very good reason for that.  I don't like cake much.  Plus, my birthday is 3 days before Christmas, and the last thing I want amid the Christmas cookies, candy, and other holiday treats, is leftover birthday cake.  We decided to get around that by just going out for dessert--whatever dessert we want, after dinner on my birthday.  That takes a little stress out of the week, since nobody has to bake me a cake (which, again, I don't really like much anyway), and best of all, NO LEFTOVERS!

What does your family do to make birthdays special?  Any special traditions that you want to share with the rest of us?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Perfect Imperfection

Well, we have been making a bit of progress in our mud room (to be).  The wall that will be opposite the cupboard and locker wall is primed and ready for finishing.  We bought the slate tile for the floor (as well as enough for the floor in our front entryway that has been stripped to studs for....has it been 3 or 4 years?  Eh...we'll get to that eventually).  And I finally worked up the nerve to knock out a project that scared me.


I am a perfectionist, see.

Those of you who have been to my house may be laughing right now.  That's okay.  You would definitely not walk in my front door and exclaim, "I've discovered perfection!"  At least not yet.  Not for a good 20 years or so.  But THEN.  Oh, then, this house will be perfect.

Does "tongue-in-cheek" translate in print?

This is why I like things that are 100 years old.  If I tried to stay with every trend, I would just be getting around to shabby chic.  So I go with old, because even if this takes me 20 years, it'll be okay.  Old will still be old.

Cluttered will still be cluttered, too.  But let's think positive and assume that I will grow in my housekeeping skills as these 20 years progress.

So anyway, I am not the good kind of perfectionist.  I have a friend who is the good kind.  Her house is perfectly clean and updated, her kids are dressed perfectly, her daughter's hair is perfect, and she's always improving her house.  She likes things perfect, and so she makes them that way.  Oh, to be like her.  See, I like things perfect, too. But I get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and worried that it won't turn out like it should.  So I hide.  I ignore.  I find something, anything else to do.  And while I recognized this about myself around two years ago (as I was finishing up one of those projects and realizing that it really hadn't been all that difficult and that I was happy with the result), it hasn't seemed to help me to tackle a project head-on.

This project may have changed that.

I have never been so happy with the outcome of an idea that had floated around in my head for some time.  There's always something to regret, right?  Not this time.

This time, it turned out better than I expected.

I took a chance.  I wanted to do something on the back wall of the cupboards that we are building.  The cupboards will have glass doors, so I thought it would be nice to make the inside a little prettier.  I saw an idea on a friend's blog that I liked, but the exact design was a little too modern for my needs.  It was perfect for her, but she lives in one of those houses that was built after asbestos and lead paint went out of style.  I want the things that we add to the house to blend in with what is already there, at least to the degree that my budget will allow.  I had a thought in my head, but I'm not the artist type who can really see the big picture and know that it will work.  I could only see a small snippet. But hey, it was worth a try.  So I sketched the first segment.

Then I attempted to sketch a mirror image.  Pretty close, but not exact.  Only then did I get the idea to scan the design that I had so far into the computer and create a mirror image that way.  Of course, I had absolutely no idea how to do that, but it seemed like something that should be possible.  So I did what any nearly 40 year old woman does when she needs help with the computer.  I called my 10 year old son.  He said he didn't know how to do it.  And then he whipped it out in about 10 minutes.

That was nearly a month ago.  My perfectionism kicked in and I was paralyzed by the fear that it wouldn't look the way that I wanted it to look.  However, since my goal is to get the mud room finished before the snow flies, I finally felt the pressure to get this done.  It could always be painted over, right?

I used a technique that I learned from the same blog.  Kind of brilliant in its simplicity.  I turned the design pattern over and scribbled over the back side of it with pencil.

I also took measurements.  I measured the length and width of the design, and determined how many repeats I would be able to draw on my board, both down and across.  That enabled me to pretty much center the design without being too fussy.  Then I marked little dots in both directions on the board at the right intervals to help guide me as I attempted to keep the pattern straight.

I lined a carpenters square up with each set of dots, and placed the pattern in the corner, right side up.  Once I was certain that it was where it should be, I traced the pattern.  

The pencil lead that I scribbled on the back side of the pattern transfered over to the board!  This is such a great technique.  I wish I had known about it before I used an exacto knife to meticulously cut all of Phillipians 4:8 out of printer paper to use as a makeshift stencil for my living room wall.  That was so much harder than it needed to be!

I just kept repeating the pattern, all the way across, just lining up both the carpenter's square and the pattern.  There were times that I just ignored the square, because it looked like the pattern was getting off.  I suppose this was due to the handmade pattern being a little "off".  But it worked out.  Every once in a while, I had to rescribble the back of the pattern.

Finally, the time came to paint.  I figured that the hard part was done.  I was wrong!  Oh, it was my own fault.  I didn't think it through.  I had the tiny artist's paint brush, but it doesn't really work so well with latex paint + primer.  Duh.  It was so thick that I couldn't paint a complete line without refilling the paint brush about three times.  This meant that the paint line would get thin, I would have to stop to refill, and then I restarted it, which often caused sort of a lumpy line.  On top of that, I used about 2 tablespoons of paint from a quart size can.  Doh!  So, if you decide to do anything like this, I recommend that you head over to Hobby Lobby and buy a small jar of paint that is actually intended to be used with those tiny little brushes.  I'm pretty sure it will be less frustrating.

As I was leaning over the board, inches away from those lines, I became discouraged at the lumpiness and imperfection.  However, once I stepped away for a break and came back, I was able to look at it from a couple of feet away.  The imperfections were hard to pick out!  The pattern had begun to take shape, and I was able to see the big picture.  That's a lesson that I plan to carry with me to all future projects.

I liked it!  That gave me the boost I needed to carry on and get it done.  And once I was done, and could look at the whole thing, the idea that had been bouncing around in my head, now in front of my eyes, I LOVED IT!  

It suddenly looked like fancy chain link, or that sort of bronze chicken wire that you see in the door panel of some antique pie safe.  It looked OLD!  It looked perfect.

Truthfully, this house will never be perfect.  It's been too well lived in.  Too many times, various owners have desired to make this house their home, and laid yet another layer of paint or wallpaper on the walls, thus making it quite impossible to ever paint a straight line between the ceiling and the wall.  And it has settled.  It was built well before laser levels.  No corner is a perfect 90 degrees, and no wall is perfectly flat. All of the imperfections of the house have given me license to accept imperfection in any additions that I make to the house.  They fit right in.  In a way, in this house, imperfect is perfect.  And while I can't make this house perfect, I can make it mine.  It just takes some guts.

Are there any projects that you have been putting off because you were too scared to tackle them?  I'm not just talking about home improvement.  Is there a story you've been wanting to write?  A complicated recipe you've wanted to try?  A party you've wanted to throw?  Let me know if you are ready to put them back at the top of the list!

Oh, and....if you can think of any good ideas for using up a quart of high gloss Spiced Chai primer + paint, please leave a comment below.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


Mmmmmm.....guacamole is so yummy.  You know, I used to think that the serpent convinced Eve to try an avocado, because it is the only fruit that could be that tempting.  However, I realize now that it couldn't have been an avocado.  You know why?  Because avocados don't ripen on the tree.  And if you've ever had an under ripe avocado, you know that it is anything but tempting.  

In fact, using ripe avocados is the trickiest part of making guacamole.  It's quite easy to put together.  But catching avocados at that perfect time when they are soft, buttery and at peak flavor, but not stringy and mushy from going overripe, is a challenge.

As I mentioned, though, I learned a couple of years ago that avocados don't ripen on the tree (Alton Brown told me so).  That changed my whole perspective.  See, I am a picky produce shopper.  I am that woman who stares at the pile of tomatoes, picks them up, holds them away from the special lights that shine on the display that make them look more red than they are, squeezes them to see if they yield to light pressure.......yup, I am that woman.  I have high standards for lettuce, limes, asparagus, garlic, you name it.  So when I used to shop for avocados, I would look for a good, all-over brown color, something that would yield slightly to light pressure when I pressed my thumb (gently) into the flesh, but with no really soft spots, and heavy for its size.  No more.  Shopping for avocados is easy now.  The only thing is, I have to plan ahead.  Three to four days before I need them, I look for bright green, unblemished fruit that is very firm all around.  I take them home and set them on my counter.  If I am in a rush, I can put them in a paper bag with an apple or banana for a couple of days, and they will ripen a bit faster.  Now, after they start to look brown, I apply the light pressure with my thumb.  If it yields just a bit, I can tell that it is softened enough to use.  So far, I've had pretty good luck with this method.  However, if you have a sudden, unquenchable craving for guacamole and you don't have any ready on the counter, check at a Mexican market.  Some of them carry a constant supply of avocados, and you'll have better luck finding some ripe ones there than at a regular grocery store.  Trust me, if you've tried avocado before or after it was ripe, and didn't like it, you really need to try this.  There is just nothing better than a soft, green-fleshed, buttery avocado.

Back to the produce section for a minute....

Limes.  I love limes.  I would keep a bowl full of them in my kitchen if I had any room to put the bowl or the time to make a mojito every night.  My friends and I throw a little party for our kids' teachers every spring, and last May we had a Tex-Mex menu.  I didn't realize until my friend Patty pointed it out, that there was lime in just about everything.  The fajita marinade, the cilantro-lime rice, the pico de gallo, the guacamole, the salsa for chips, the mint-lime agua fresca....even the strawberry granita had a bit of lime juice in it.  I really hope that nobody was averse to limes that night.  

But again, picking them out is the hard part.  I once bought limes at Aldi because they were quite cheap.  Problem was, I got maybe a teaspoon of juice out of each one.  Not cool.  I love Aldi to pieces, but I don't buy citrus fruit there anymore.  Yeah, I hold a grudge.

I have since learned the secret for finding the best, juiciest limes.

I'm hesitant to publish this, though.  Because I want to be able to find the good ones.  I feel the need to share.  But if you shop at the Meijer on Alpine....just leave a few good ones for me, okay?

Here goes:  Most days, there are loads of limes to choose from.  There are often two different sizes.  It doesn't really matter which one you buy.  If you only need a tablespoon or so of juice, get the small ones.  This rarely applies for me.  I buy the big ones.  They are usually about 5 for $2.  Code 4048 if you use the self-checkout at Meijer.  Did I mention that I love limes?  So how do you choose the good ones from this enormous selection?

There are three main things that I look for:  Color, shape and skin.  The lime on the left is pale and yellow.  The one on the right is bright green.  This really only matters if you are using the zest.  It probably won't affect the juice.  But since I often do use the zest, I zero in on the green.  For juice, though, the lime on the right is still superior because of its shape.  Round limes (and lemons, too) usually yield more juice than a more oblong lime.

Again, the lime on the right will tend to be juicier than the one on the left.  I can tell because of its skin. It's not quite as obvious in this picture, but the peel on the left is quite dimpled, whereas the one on the right is pretty smooth.  Dimpled citrus peel tends to be thick, and thick peel means less pulp.  Less pulp means less juice.

Go for the roundest, brightest green, smoothest limes you can find.  And, as with pretty much all fruits, apply light pressure with your thumb.  A rock hard lime won't yield as much juice as one that gives slightly.  And to get the most juice out of citrus, roll it firmly against the countertop with your palm right before you cut it in half.  This breaks up some of the pulp and makes your job of squeezing easier.  Squeeze each half as much as you can, and then get your (very clean) thumbs up into the rind.  Press, squeeze and massage until you can't get another drop out.  I usually get nearly 1/4 cup of juice out of each lime.  When a recipe calls for "1 cup of lime juice (6-8 limes)", I get a little thrill out of getting that much juice out of 5 limes.  Yeah, I do realize what that says about me.

Alright, now that all the produce is chosen and the avocados have ripened on the countertop, let's make guacamole!

Now get your four nicely ripened avocados ready.

Slice through the avocado from the top, until your knife hits the pit in the center.  The skin tends to be a bit leathery, so if your knife doesn't slip right in, use the tip to poke a small hole, and then slide the blade against that hole.  You shouldn't have any more trouble with it.

Once your knife blade hits the pit, turn the avocado around so that the knife continues around the pit.  Once you get all the way around the avocado, you can twist the two halves to loosen one side from the pit, and then pull them apart.  One side will keep the pit.  To get it out, lightly tap the knife blade into the pit until it catches, then twist the knife and the pit will come right out.   Be careful getting the pit off of the knife.  It's slippery, and accidents can happen.  Don't try to do this with your bare hands.  Either use a pot holder or a folded up paper towel to grab the pit, and then pull the knife out.  The towel will protect your hand.  

To cut the avocado, you can go one of three ways.  If you are comfortable with your knife, you can hold the avocado half in your non-dominant hand, flesh side up, and use the tip of your knife to score the flesh in a checkerboard pattern, making sure not to go through the skin.  Then you can scoop out the cubes with a large spoon, scraping the spoon along the peel.  It comes out easily when the avocado 
is ripe.

However, I prefer to take the avocado half out of the skin intact, either by scooping the entire half out with the spoon as above, or by peeling the skin away from the flesh.  For one thing, I can more closely inspect the avocado for any yucky brown spots, and easily cut them away.  For another, if I want diced avocado, I prefer to make a horizontal cut to make the pieces more uniform before dicing.  And in the case of guacamole, it is all going to be smashed anyway, so why bother dicing it?   I just scoop the avocado half out into the bowl, and then use the side of the spoon to roughly cut the avocado into chunks.

Now squeeze the juice of one lime all over the avocado chunks, and toss to coat.  This not only adds flavor, but helps to delay the oxidation process that makes avocados that are exposed to the air turn brown.

While the avocados rest in the lime juice, prep the rest of the ingredients.  First, cut a tomato in half, remove the core, and scoop the seeds and out with your finger.  The gel that surrounds the seeds will contribute a lot of moisture, and you don't want watery guacamole.  It's best to just get rid of the stuff!  Then just chop the tomato into a small dice.  Don't be too fussy about it, just keep in mind that this is being lifted by a tortilla chip, so you want the pieces pretty small.

You will also need half of a small or a quarter of a large onion, finely diced, and a clove or two of garlic, minced.  Get some cilantro leaves pulled off of the stems, too.  I would say at least 1/4 cup, but I like way, way more.  Like at least a cup full of leaves, unpacked.  But don't mince them until you are ready to mix them in.  They tend to take on a soapy flavor once minced and exposed to the air.

Now it's time to season the guacamole.  Use about 3/4 tsp each of course Kosher salt and ground cumin, and about 1/2 tsp of ground cayenne pepper.  I prefer cayenne pepper to minced jalepeno in guacamole.  I think it adds heat and flavor, while jalepeno can add an unpleasant hit of heat that just feels off amongst the creaminess of the guacamole.  Personal preference, though.  You could certainly substitute minced jalepeno for the cayenne.

Time to mash it up.  Some recipes suggest using two knives, which leaves you with a very chunky guacamole.  Others suggest using a fork, which tends to get very smooth, and takes forever.  I like it somewhere in between, and I find that using a potato masher gives me a good creamy texture with a few pleasant chunks, and it takes only a few seconds to get there.

When you have the texture you like, add the tomato, onion and garlic.....

And finally, the cilantro.  Stir it all in well.

Finally, and this is important, taste the guacamole.  Don't taste it with a spoon, because that's probably not how you are going to serve it.  Taste it with a chip.  Chips are salty, so you want to see how the guacamole tastes with the salt on the chip.  Otherwise, you may add salt and find that it is too salty with the chips.  At this point, I usually add more lime juice or cilantro.  Again, if you are using the lime-flavored chips, more lime may not be needed, so taste it the way you'll serve it!

Finally, to avoid oxidation before serving or while storing leftover guacamole, smooth out the surface of the guacamole with the back side of a spoon, and then lay a piece of plastic wrap over the bowl.  Lift the edge of the plastic wrap with one hand, and press it down to the center of the surface of the guacamole with the other hand.  Slide your fingers along the surface of the guacamole, all the way to the edge of the bowl, to adhere the plastic wrap to the surface.  Turn the bowl and repeat until the entire surface has been "coated" with plastic wrap, and the wrap is adhered to the inside of the bowl.  This blocks out the air quite thoroughly, and you won't end up with brown guacamole when you pull it out in a couple of days.  My frugal side compels me to tell you that there is really nothing wrong with browned guacamole.  For one thing, only the surface will brown.  If it bothers you, you can scrape it off to reveal still-green guacamole underneath.  If you have a stronger constitution than I, you can also just stir it in, and the brown will all but disappear.  So if you didn't have any plastic wrap, or if you didn't quite seal all of the air out, no worries.  Don't toss the guacamole.  However, a good seal as described above is the best option.  This guacamole has been refrigerated for two days, and it looks just like it did when I put it away.

Enjoy it!